06/12/2013 4:46PM

Jay Hovdey: Palace Malice puts Aiken in a New York state of mind

Barbara D. Livingston
Cot Campbell hoists the Belmont Stakes trophy after Palace Malice's upset victory.

They were going wild in Aiken, gathered around their TV screens and watching their local hero, Palace Malice, out there on the lead under the colors of Aiken’s very own Dogwood Stable. You could hear the cheers coming from every corner of the horsey little South Carolina town, and what a beautiful sight it was – right up to the moment Palace Malice hit a wall at the top of the Kentucky Derby stretch and backed up to finish 12th.

"He gave them a thrill," said Cot Campbell, Dogwood Stable president, a few weeks later. "There’s something to be said for that, even if he didn’t finish the job."

This was reminiscent of Campbell’s comments from 23 years ago, when Dogwood’s 1990 Preakness Stakes winner Summer Squall made a heroic return to Aiken for an off-season freshening.

"Fifty people showed up at the barn to watch him eat grass," Campbell said then. "People are easily entertained here in Aiken."

Not any more. From now on, in the wake of the victory of Palace Malice in the Belmont Stakes last Saturday, the bar will be set pretty high. The memory of Summer Squall has faded. No longer will the deeply loyal Dogwood fans of Aiken be satisfied by merely hitting the board in a classic, or making the lively pace. If the local reaction to the Belmont is any indication, nothing less than a grand triumph will ever be tolerated again.

[BELMONT STAKES: Live updates and video from Belmont Park]

After bidding farewell to Palace Malice in New York on Sunday, Campbell and his wife, Anne, flew home to Aiken, which has been home to the Dogwood Stable enterprise since 1986. They landed, taxied to the gate, and let Cot pick up the story from there:

"When we arrived at the Aiken airport at about one o’clock the building was festooned with balloons and yellow ribbons," Cambell began. "Our colors were everywhere. All kind of signs, and a pretty big crowd.

"As we drove into Aiken, at every stop sign there was a balloon, or a sign, something," he went on. "Then, at the last big intersection before we got to our house, there dancing in the street were five women – we knew them all – dancing to the tune of ‘New York, New York.’ "

There was another crowd at the Campbell’s home, along with TV crews from the big city of Augusta, just down the road across the state line.

"Seemed like about half the population," Campbell said.

He was exaggerating, but only for effect. As a former ad man and tireless promoter, Campbell knows when to embellish a pitch and when to sit back and let the product sell itself. From the outset, the targeted Dogwood investor has been the high-end, well-established business individual willing to risk a bit of their fortune for the chance at entertaining rewards. They’d seen guys like Campbell coming before, and Cot was smart enough to know it.

Dogwood also delivered. Before Summer Squall there were the significant stakes winners Dominion, Nassipour, Practitioner, Domynsky, Southjet, and steeplechase champion Inlander. After Summer Squall came Cotton Blossom, Trippi, Limehouse, Montubio, Smok’n Frolic, Wallenda, Wild Escapade, and champion filly Storm Song. Before last Saturday, Palace Malice was still trying to join that bunch as a stakes winner. Two and a half minutes over a drying-out Belmont track took care of that.

"The Belmont reeks of tradition," Campbell said. "It represents all the things racing used to be and ought to be. It’s that one day when it all comes back."

Campbell got a kick out of the emotional reaction to the Belmont win from his trainer, the habitually buttoned-down Todd Pletcher. They have history of their own.

"I think he was moved by delivering the goods on this race for me," Campbell said.

"When he was just starting out I sent Todd five horses when he had eight, down at Hialeah," Campbell noted, referring to the nascent days of Pletcher’s career, circa 1996. "There was one called Colonel Bradley, a hard-knocking old horse, and another one called Trample, who won the Everglades.

"I’d been aware of Todd from Saratoga, going back and forth to the winner’s circle when he was with Lukas," Campbell added. "When we met he told me he was 30, but I know for sure he was 29. He thought 30 sounded better. I thought it was kind of funny, but I knew what he was doing. I probably would have done the same thing."

Meanwhile, back in Aiken . . .

"On Monday the Rotary Club had a big party for us, with a standing ovation and all that business," Campbell said. "The Green Boundary Club is going to have a party Sunday night, and the mayor wants to have another thing. We are overwhelmed. I may have to run for something.

"It sounds self-serving, but I guess it was a fairly popular victory," he said. "God knows I’ve heard from a lot of people. Then again they may just feel sorry for me. They know that the shadows are growing long on the lawn, and they’ve got to treat me nice."

Campbell turns 86 in September. Over the course of his career he has received the John Galbreath Award for entrepreneurial excellence in racing, been honored as the featured guest of the Thoroughbred Club of America’s annual dinner, and inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame. In November of 2011 he announced his semi-retirement, stating that he would scale back the Dogwood inventory and concentrate on servicing the existing partnerships. In January of 2012 he received the Eclipse Award of Merit.

"Nobody’s ever had a life that he thought was better than the one I’ve led," Campbell said. "I may be wrong, but that’s what I think."

In April of 2012, at the Keeneland sale of 2-year-olds, Campbell signed a ticket for $200,000 to buy a son of Curlin out of Palace Rumor, a daughter of Royal Anthem. The name Palace Malice seemed a natural.

"We all liked him a lot from the start," Campbell said. "For all I’ve been blessed with, I kept thinking, ‘Lord, I’d like to have one more great big damn win.’ And I got it Saturday afternoon."